Interview with Michael McKinley, Author of Hockey: A People's History
When I was approached to conduct an interview with Michael McKinley about his 2006 book, Hockey: A People’s History, I was excited for the opportunity, but slightly hesitant about reading the book. Most of us, as hockey fans, think we know anything and everything there is to know about the sport we like to call our own here in Canada, and I, of course, was no different. But the truth is that there is much we don’t know about how hockey became a national sport, our pride and a staple in our lives in under a century and a half, and astonishing feat.
The first question I asked Mr. McKinley was maybe an obvious one. What would inspire a native Canadian to put together such a detailed and thorough history of our sport together? It read as follows:
GP: I know that the CBC approached you to work on Hockey: A People's History after you wrote Putting a Roof on Winter earlier in the decade, but what inspired you in putting together such an epic telling of the 135 or so years of hockey in this country?
The answer is probably the most resounding reason that everyone reading this should go and pick up a copy of this book today, if they haven’t done so already:
There really isn’t any better way to put it. Hockey has come to be a major part of almost every Canadian’s life. Whether it’s someone whose family has resided in Canada since long before the sport’s creation, or even someone who is just arriving to the country, they’re likely to have at least watched one hockey game in their lives. When there is a game on, it’s on every screen at every sports bar, in many homes across the country, and in many Canadians’ minds, even long after the final buzzer. Americans have football, basketball and baseball. Europeans have soccer. But no sport resonates more with a single country’s population and history than hockey does in Canada.
Despite this clear connection with most, if not all of us, not many people really think of how this sport came to be such a major part of our daily lives. When The Checking Line opens its doors nearly a year ago, we added the following tagline at the top of the page, mostly in jest:
We didn’t really give it much thought, but that’s really how long hockey has been part of our history. Through world wars, cold wars, revolutions, riots, economic highs and economic lows, controversies and moments of glory, hockey has somehow found a way to leave a mark on Canada.
Hockey: A People’s History shares with us many of these stories, many of these moments in our history, and manages to teach even the most informed hockey fans many interesting and astounding facts about both our sport and our history over the last 135 years.
Luckily for us, Mr. McKinley was kind enough to answer a few questions in regards to his book and the process of writing it, to the current state of hockey and the NHL, and to his upcoming projects as an author.
GP: How did writing Hockey: A People’s History differ from writing Putting a Roof on Winter?
GP: I read that while writing Hockey: A People’s History, you had the help of staff that worked on the TV version of your novel in your research. Was there any period or event in the book that you found especially difficult in researching, or uncovering?
GP: Is there any fact or story that really stood out in your research and surprised you?
GP: Who was your favorite character (or characters) to write about in the book?
GP: In the book you obviously talk about a lot of the builders of our sport, both on and off the ice, many of whom have their own trophies named after them for either their accomplishments or their association to the trophy before it was given to hockey. If you could choose one other historical figure of the sport and name a trophy after them, who would it be, and what would the trophy be given for?
GP: In hockey's 135 plus year history in Canada, many historical events, from wars, to economic booms and depressions, have left a profound mark and effect on the sport. Is there any particular historical occurrence that you could say had the biggest effect on the sport, over all the rest?
GP: I think that if you asked most hockey fans which trade shocked them the most in their years as hockey fans, it would probably be the Wayne Gretzky trade from the Oilers to the Kings in 1988. In your research, is there any other trade that you think left as profound a mark on the sport and the country in the sport's history?
GP: As a Habs fan and writer, much of the criticism I hear about the Canadiens is that the reason they won so many Stanley Cups is because of the "cultural Clause" that allowed them to pick francophone players ahead of anyone else in the amateur drafts of the 60s. In the book you state that the Canadiens only used this clause twice. Still, with easy access to Francophone players even before the amateur draft was put into place in 1963, what effect do you think the Francophone "flavor" had on the Canadiens and their winning ways over the last 100 years? Moreover, do you think the recent decline of Francophone talent entering the NHL had had a negative impact on the Canadiens?
From here, we went on to ask Mr. McKinley a few question in regards to the current state of hockey and the NHL, from the Winter Olympics, to the expansion of the sport and the salary cap, among other topics:
GP: Winning the gold medal in hockey at these past Olympics in Vancouver was an important and prideful moment for most, if not all Canadians. How do you think Sidney Crosby and co's victory at the 2010 Olympics over the Americans stacks up to the 1972 summit series, a very important part of Canada's history and, of course, your book?
GP: In the book, there is a fair amount of talk of amateur status, and the players that were sent, or were allowed to be sent to world championships and the Olympics over the years. With Canada winning the gold medal at these year's games, and, of course, the USA finishing in 2nd place, do you think the NHL will allow NHLers to return to the Olympics in Sochi in 2014?
GP: One of the facts in your book that astounded me the most was the fact that for many years, the NHL and other hockey leagues in the country had a salary cap, like the one teams have to deal with today. What are your thoughts on the NHL's current salary cap, compared to the one that teams lived with for years, decades even, in the 20th century?
GP: A few weeks ago, the NHL rejected a 17-year contract between the New Jersey Devils and Ilya Kovalchuk. Subsequently, it was revealed that the NHL was also looking into some "front-loaded" contracts that were already approved by the NHL. Based on what you researched and uncovered for Hockey: A People’s History, do you see any precedent for the NHL to reject such contracts?
GP: One fear that is creeping up on many hockey fans in this country is that of another lockout next season, when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expired in 2011. What effect do you think another lockout would on the NHL and the sport in general, so soon after the last one?
GP: Where do you see the sport and the NHL in 10 or 20 years?
(Interestingly enough, this interview was conducted only a few days prior to yesterday’s news that IIHF President Réné Fasel was against the NHL expanding to Europe)
GP: The Montreal Canadiens are currently on a near 20-year Stanley Cup drought. The Toronto Maple Leafs are nearing 45 years without a cup. Which team do you think will break the drought first? Will one of these teams be the first to bring the cup back to Canada, or will it be one of the other four Canadian teams?
GP: Finally, a tough question that may get you into trouble with some of our readers. After over 75 years of debate, which is "Canada's team": The Montreal Canadiens, or the Toronto Maple Leafs? Is there room in the hearts of Canadians for both to hold that title?
We also asked Mr. McKinley a few questions about what he would like to do in the future, and some of his upcoming projects:
GP: If you could write one more chapter to Hockey: A People's History, on any topic or occurrence that has happened since the last addition to the book, what would it be?
GP: I know you've written a book about Mario Lemieux, but if you could choose any character from Hockey: A People's History who you could write another book about, who would it be?
GP: You recently forayed into the world of novel writing with The Penalty Killing. How did that experience differ from writing books such as Hockey: A People's History, or your work as a journalist?
GP: What's next for Michael McKinley?
Finally, we asked Mr. McKinley if he had a message to anyone who may be considering picking up a copy of the book:
GP: Like many Canadians, I always kind of thought of myself as somewhat of an "expert" on the sport of hockey. After reading Hockey: A People's History, I was humbled to find out how much I didn't know about the sport, and very glad that I had an opportunity to read it and further my knowledge about hockey. Is there anything you might like to say to Canadians who may feel the same way, who may be hesitant in picking up a copy of the book?
Reading Hockey: A People’s History was truly an eye-opening experience for me. There is truly a great amount of stories on Canada’s 135 year relationship with the sport of hockey that really don’t get enough attention. Michael McKinley sheds light on many of these stories of hockey’s builders, movers and shakers over the last century and a half, and puts a nice twist on how these stories are told. Once you pick up this book and begin reading of the first of the sport’s origins, of the first outdoor game staged by James Creighton in Montreal in 1875, you will not be able to put it down. Not until finding out how this continuing 135 year saga plays out to our present day.
Michael McKinley, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, is an author of several hockey books, a novelist, journalist, documentary filmmaker, screenwriter, and Oxford professor. Hockey: A People’s History, which was written to accompany a CBC special of the same name, can be found here, on Amazon. His recent foray into the world of novel writing, entitled The Penalty Killing: A Martin Carter Mystery can be found at this link. If you are a hockey fan and, more importantly, a Canadian, both are titles that should be in your book collection.
My thanks to Mr. McKinley and Stephen Crane of CraneCreek Communications for the opportunity and interview.